Tuesday, March 22

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 24 comments

Many approach revision as if it were the literary equivalent of housecleaning. You sweep away redundancies, throw out excess adverbs and dialogue tags, donate some unneeded subplots to charity, polish lackluster sentences, and voila, a shiny manuscript.

Agents and editors are looking for more than tidiness. They want a story that grabs them by the throat and won't let go. A story that sings.

It's easy to let the fear of making mistakes put your creative gift into a straight jacket, especially when revising. One of the ways to unleash the raw energy your manuscript needs is to take a lesson from the jazz world--improvisation. Once you've done the work of smoothing out the plot--equivalent to a musician laying out the key, tempo, and where important shifts will happen--it's time to go back and make lackluster sections sing. In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon calls this "riff-writing."

Riff-writing is a very focused kind of freewriting. Lyon says it "helps you expand your imagination around a particular problem or need--to lengthen a section, to add images, or to develop more characterization, for instance" (10).

Here's how to approach riffing:

1. Find a section (sentence, paragraph, scene) that feels thin, underdeveloped or emotionally flat.

2. Find a point of entry to explore further--the setting, an object, a character's feelings or memory or attitude.

3. Start scribbling--start at your entry point and follow the thoughts and feelings wherever they lead. As with rough drafting, don't edit or censor yourself. Let any and every idea flow. Push past your comfort level and really explore every dark cave, every windy mountaintop. Remember that in improvisation, "there are no wrong notes, you work them and they become part of the riff," Lyon says, quoting a musician friend (11).

4. Let the riff "cool off" while you work on other sections.

5. Come back and edit down the riff material that works best in your story. Set aside bits that might be useful elsewhere for expanding other sections of the story.

Lyon notes that in her twenty years as an independent editor, she has rarely seen consistently overwritten fiction. It's far more likely that drafts are too thin, a shell of what they need to be. Revision is where you can pump in more life and fully develop your characters, plot and voice.

Image: http://www.clker.com/

Quoted material from: Lyon, Elizabeth. Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. New York: Penguin, 2008.

What sections of your story could benefit from riff-writing? How might you move from tidy draft to fully developed story?


  1. Nice and jazzy post. Enjoyed! (You might want to read a post at my blog with a similar theme by our State Poet Laureate nominee, Ava Haymon, on how jazz inspired the work in her newest book of poetry.) http://angie-ledbetter.blogspot.com/2011/03/writerly-wednesday-journey-from.html

  2. This is excellent! I think backstory (which of course we have sprinkled sparingly throughout, only where absolutely essential) could benefit from this treatment.

  3. this is perfect. And as a professed underwriter this is something I constantly work on after macro revisions! Perfect timing!

  4. I love the jazz music comparison. :)

  5. I love this idea. I must give it a try! I just have to remember to turn off my inner editor. She's an aggressive sort. :) Glad you shared this. Thanks so much!

  6. I'll work on this as I make my manuscript sing.

  7. Great advice! I will definitely apply this method as I work through revisions. :)

  8. I absolutely love this post and analogy and want to explore this idea further. I do think too often my editing is merely tidying up and I don't go deep enough. Will check out the Lyon book, but do you recommend others on same subject as well? Do you have further posts?

    Also, are you on Twitter?


  9. Sorry, just re-read my comment above and realized I wasn't clear on one question -- I meant do you have further posts on this topic of jazzing up your revisions? Or other posts from the same Lyon book? Thanks!

  10. Angie: Thanks. I'll go check out your post, too! It is a helpful metaphor, isn't it?

    Jenna: Lyon's book had a really great example in it too, but I thought posting it would be pushing the envelope copyright-wise. Lyon stressed the importance of fearlessly pouring more emotion into our scenes using this technique.

    Laura: I highly, highly recommend Lyon's book. She has tons of great ideas for making your story more full-fledged through revision.

  11. Lola: a good metaphor gets one's juices flowing, doesn't it?

    Karen: The IE has an important role--it's all a matter of timing as to when you turn her loose. Lyon does say riffs eventually needed to be trimmed and polished as well.

    Mary: I knew you would groove with this music metaphor! :-)

  12. Liz: Have fun with it. Doing riffs like this is why I actually enjoy the revision process.

    Susan: I have loads of posts on revision--just click the label "revision" in the second column on the right and all the previous posts on the topic will come up. I've had the book for a while and find it a top go-to resource. My copy is thoroughly scribbled in and underlined! King and Browne's book _Self Editing for Fiction Writers_ is pretty good also.

    I haven't yet joined the Twitter-verse, but I am on Facebook. Feel free to friend me, using the badge here on my blog.

  13. Oh, so this is what you call it! Wow, I've been doing this in my latest book. Everything I mark in red, I have to go back and development. I'm glad it has a name now. Thanks Laurel.

  14. I like that way of thinking of it. My sons play jazz, so that makes sense to me. Great idea.

  15. Anne: Thank Elizabeth Lyon for this brilliant term--it her brainchild. :-) And don't you find this part of the process incredibly fun? I feel like I'm my writerly best at this stage.

    Angie: I love the metaphor, too, having seen some great jazz performances. Working within parameters seems to unleash great creativity.

  16. I like this idea- revising is actually my favorite part of the writing process because that's when my writing really gets to sing.

    Great post!

  17. hey, I like that approach! It's sort of what I do already, but I've never seen it described that way... jazzy~ :D

  18. Hmmm, these tips are really helpful to me right now since I'm currently on the revision stage. I may just have to buy this book. :)

    Thanks for sharing this!

  19. I love riff writing. That was one of the best things I took away from the book. I can't edit on the hard copy anymore because of the book. I have to do it on the computer on a file I call "playing around". :D

  20. Riff-writing is a brilliant description of revision and I love the idea of improvisation to see where a particular scene will go. I am definitely adding this to my bag of tricks... Thanks! (I love your blog by the way!)

  21. Remember that in improvisation, "there are no wrong notes, you work them and they become part of the riff," Lyon says, quoting a musician friend.

    Wonderful thing to remember, not only in writing, but in making our life choices(within basic moral standards).

  22. Stephanie: Me, too! And Lyon's book has made the process even more enjoyable.

    Leigh: It really highlights how revision can stretch us to powerful creativity. Jazzy indeed!

    Tessa: It is worth every penny and a favorite of mine. I've given copies as gifts and as a blog giveaway too.

  23. Stina: I've never seen another book on editing and revision encourage adding like this. But it's true, this is one of Lyon's most powerful concepts.

    Pam: Thanks and welcome! This is a powerful technique--layering in more emotion, sensory experience, attitude, voice--AFTER the groundwork is laid and you know the characters well.

    Lori: Great point. Having a fearful need to always be perfect is limiting. Risks that don't seem to immediately pay off can still shape us in interesting ways.

  24. Oh, such good advice! and I love the analogy to improving a riff in jazz. I'm adding this to my resources list!